Harvard Joins Native American Health Project

KSG institute to lead collaboration with federal agency

The University unveiled a new partnership with the federal government’s Indian Health Service (IHS) last week that echoes the goal to educate “English and Indian youth” outlined in Harvard’s 1650 charter.

IHS is a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Provost Steven E. Hyman and Charles W. Grim, assistant surgeon general and director of IHS, signed a memorandum of understanding on Feb. 21 announcing that they will be collaborating on an effort to improve the health of the country’s Native American population.

“Improving our understanding of health disparities between Native Americans and non-Native communities in the U.S. is one of the terribly pressing needs in the fields of healthcare and health policy,” Hyman said in a statement last week. “Harvard and IHS together have the capacity to study this problem and to effect positive change.”

The partnership will be led at Harvard’s end by the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP), an institute in the Kennedy Schoool of Government.

Carmen D. Lopez, executive director of HUNAP, and Dennis Norman, the faculty chair of HUNAP’s Native Health Program, said in a conference call yesterday that the partnership is designed “to bring the brainpower of Harvard to benefit Native people.”

Leo J. Nolan, a senior policy analyst at IHS, said Tuesday that over the past 50 years, IHS has been very successful at combatting infectious disease in the Native American community, but that chronic illness—health problems related to lifestyle and behavior—remains a problem.

“We need to enlist support—both in terms of resources, talent, and ideas—from other entities that have the competency to help us,” Nolan said.

Norman and Lopez said that one of the first steps they have taken is to ask HUNAP’s Faculty Advisory Board, comprised of professors from almost all of the University’s schools, to lend its expertise, on topics ranging from health to business, to IHS.

Norman added that another early project involves creating mid-career education opportunities for IHS officers “to get the skills they need in public health or health policy.”

He also said that a fellowship focusing on Native American health issues at Massachusetts General Hospital is in the works.

Nolan voiced strong support for the plans, and said that IHS hoped the University would also work to increase the number of Native American students at Harvard Medical School.

“We need more Indians going into health professions,” Nolan said. “We would like to see more opportunities for young Indian medical students to go to Harvard and get the great training Harvard provides.”

Lopez said that HUNAP emphasizes respectful interactions with Native Americans and will get input from tribes on its initiatives.

“This is not Harvard charging into Indian country and telling them what they need to do,” Lopez said. “It’s a partnership. HUNAP is at the table representing Harvard, IHS is a government agency, and the third party we’re bringing to the table is tribal leaders.”

And Norman said that he hoped the collaboration would be a “two-way street.”

“These kinds of partnerships teach medicine an awful lot about how to be effective,” Norman said.

—Staff writer Laurence H. M. Holland can be reached at lholland@fas.harvard.edu.